France elections: Popularity of Marine Le Pen's vile politics is a warning the world must heed – Scotsman comment

The French presidential election, to be contested by centrist Emmanuel Macron and the far-right Marine Le Pen after the first round of voting, might seem like a distant affair, but there are important lessons for politicians the world over.

Marine Le Pen shakes hands with Vladimir Putin in 2017, three years after his forces annexed Crimea from Ukraine (Picture: Mikhail Klimentyev/AFP via Getty Images)
Marine Le Pen shakes hands with Vladimir Putin in 2017, three years after his forces annexed Crimea from Ukraine (Picture: Mikhail Klimentyev/AFP via Getty Images)

Astonishingly, the Socialists and centre-right Republicans, parties which once dominated French politics, saw their candidates poll less than five per cent.

Meanwhile, Le Pen and another far-right candidate persuaded more than 30 per cent of voters to back them, while far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon received nearly 22 per cent.

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Given that more than half of those who voted backed candidates on the political extremes, they can no longer be said to be on the fringes of politics. This is the mainstreaming of extremism.

It is a trend that has been repeated in democracies the world over in the years since the 2008 financial crash, with the election of ‘populists’ like Donald Trump in the US, Hungary’s Viktor Orban and others.

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Like them, Le Pen can be accurately described as a fellow traveller of Vladimir Putin. That so many French people could have voted for such a politician, despite Putin’s war in Ukraine, is as shocking as the 74 million Americans who backed Trump in 2020.

In our increasingly difficult, complex world, Le Pen’s vile brand of politics – described by some as a form of ‘national socialism’, from which Adolf Hitler’s Nazi party derived its name – is all-too appealing. Its false certainties are political poison that requires centrists the world over to urgently develop effective antidotes.

The focus of that work surely has to be tackling the linked social problems of inequality, falling living standards and in-work poverty that can rob people of their dignity and a sense of hope for the future, eroding faith in mainstream political leaders.

While he has flirted more than a little with populism, Boris Johnson’s ‘levelling up’ agenda could be part of the solution, but only if it is more than rhetoric and produces real results. And Keir Starmer’s Labour needs to do far more to inspire the electorate and avoid any temptation to simply wait for Johnson to fail. The SNP’s lacklustre, managerial approach in Scotland also risks allowing extremists to gain a foothold.

The French election is a warning of what can happen. We must heed it.

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